For any movie buff -- or, more appropriately, any Hollywood star-gazer -- who's got that tell-all bible Hollywood Babylon, the William Randolph Hearst/Marion Davies yacht scandal is the stuff of legend. Hearst, a media mogul before there were such things, hosted a wild party on his yacht the Oneida in 1924 with his mistress/actress Davies. Also on board were actor/producer Charlie Chaplin, Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and the godfather of the Western, producer Thomas Ince. For reasons never completely known, Ince died mysteriously.
According to Hollywood Babylon (told in author Kenneth Anger's hyper-catty tone), the rumors have swirled for decades that Hearst, suspecting an affair between Davies and Chaplin, accidentally shot Ince instead and then used his massive power to cover up the incident.
While the 1975 book is considered by many to bring the legend back to modern-day life, director Peter Bogdanovich had heard the story years earlier by his friend and idol, Orson Welles, who'd heard the version from Davies' nephew. So it would only make sense that Bogdanovich, one of the most-discussed directors of his generation, would seek to finally bring the legend to the big screen. A former film writer of some note, Bogdanovich's early film work, 1971's The Last Picture Show and 1975's Paper Moon, were filled with his passion for the French auteurs (themselves former writers) who inspired him.
In recent interviews, Bogdanovich has complained about the lack of a sense of cinematic history, and he's probably right. With The Cat's Meow, which alternates awkwardly from comedy to drama, he seeks to provide one little piece of this history, perhaps as a parable for the greed and self-absorption that dated back to the early days of Hollywood.
And while he would seem like a solid choice to do this work, his mediocre output after that early phase (and his nine-year film drought leading up to The Cat's Meow) keeps the blood from bubbling with excitement.
Add that all up and you've got a film that barely accomplishes what Bogdanovich sets out to do. The Cat's Meow is no classic; one even wonders what it would've been like in the hands of an Altman or a even a '90s-era Woody Allen. While the story is there -- the greed, the insecurities, the vanity and the power-playing that come along with fame -- there's just enough to keep Bogdanovich from making the type of film we've all believed he's capable of making. All things considered, though, The Cat's Meow is a boatload of fun.
Part of it the story itself; part of it is key performances from the female side of the cast. Kirsten Dunst as Davies continues a roll that has made her the hottest young actress in Hollywood. While Davies was considered woeful in her early, silent-era dramatic roles -- Hearst fought for years to keep her from utilizing her sizeable comic talents -- Dunst has shown she's one of the most versatile actresses around. Her Davies is a woman-child who bursts alternately with life and anxiety. As Hearst's young mistress, she crackles with a goofiness that is utterly endearing, but she's also shrewd and self-aware enough to know exactly why she is where she is. Dunst squints and frowns and hop-scotches about the yacht as she juggles her love and loyalty toward the paternal and smitten Hearst, and the advances of the charming (and thoroughly unreliable) Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Dunst is a dead ringer for Davies, her eyes smoldering from her lowered head in a way that all the silent-era actresses seemed to look.
Joanna Lumley almost steals the film in her too-brief scenes as the cynical romance novelist Elinor Glyn, serving as the group's surprising moral center. And Jennifer Tilly, borrowing from the annoying yet charming energy that filled her Oscar-nominated turn in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, is excellent as Parsons -- especially at the end of the movie, when the cat is out of the bag.
The male side of the cast is the most curious batch, which is intriguing considering that Bogdanovich has said he can relate to all three. Edward Hermann's Hearst, while endearing in his near obsession with Davies, is also so weak-willed you have to wonder how the guy became the magnate he was. Izzard is a comic genius in Great Britain, and showed promise in another Hollywood tale, 2000's The Shadow of the Vampire. But he's no Chaplin, whose elegant persona is so huge it's probably impossible to capture. Izzard's Chaplin is more predatory that suave, more creepy than calculating. And Cary Elwes' Ince, a producer whose desperate need to make a comeback sparks the violent peak of the love triangle, is simpering but not sly enough to engage.
That Bogdanovich can't make these characters a little wittier -- even though he had Steven Peros adapt his own stageplay -- is the great regret. Still, at least Bogdanovich is back and trying to show once again his love of the movies, and for that we can be grateful.
- Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) and Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) play a dangerous game in Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow.